Wednesday, May 12th, 2021

Wi-Fi 6E Explained: Better Wireless Connections at the Expense of Range

For months now, you sure have been bombarded with rosy things promised by the new Wi-Fi 6E — the extension of the Wi-Fi 6 standard. Rest assured that most of what you’ve heard is marketing hypes.

Indeed, Wi-Fi 6E sure is not all it’s been cracked up to be. Don’t get me wrong! It’s still a cool and valuable addition to existing Wi-Fi bands, just not the way you might think.

With that out of the way. Let’s get real. (And keep those hard-earned dollars in your pocket, for now.)

Dong’s note: I first published this piece on May 22, 2020, and updated it on April 6, 2021, to add additional relevant information after months of real-world testing.

READ  Wi-Fi 6 Explained in Layman's Terms: The Real Speed, Range, and More
The Netgear RAXE500 vs Asus GT AXE11000
The Netgear RAXE500 and Asus GT-AXE11000 are two first Wi-Fi 6E router on the market that you can get today.

What is Wi-Fi 6E, exactly? It’s a new freeway!

In a nutshell, Wi-Fi 6E is an extension of Wi-Fi 6 that operates in the all-new 6GHz frequency band instead of the traditional 2.4GHz or 5GHz band that’s been around for more than a decade.

Other than that, Wi-Fi 6E has all the characteristics of Wi-Fi 6, including orthogonal frequency-division multiple access (OFDMA) and Target Wake Time (TWT).

(OFDMA and TWT help improve overall Wi-Fi efficiency and mobile clients’ battery life, respectively, over the previous Wi-Fi 5 standards.)

In terms of speed, Wi-Fi 6E is the same as Wi-Fi 6. Generally, you’ll get 600Mbps per stream via an 80MHz channel or 1200Mbps via a 160MHz channel.

So then why do we even need Wi-Fi 6E, you might wonder.

The upside of 6E: It’s all about the channel width

We don’t need Wi-Fi 6E. We want it. But let’s back up a bit. To understand Wi-Fi 6E, we first need to know why the existing 5GHz band of Wi-Fi 6 just doesn’t cut it.

The pain of DFS and mixed clients

Wi-Fi transmits data via channels, measured in Megahertz (MHz). If a Wi-Fi band (5GHz, 2.4GHz, or 6GHz) is a freeway, channels are lanes. Wider means more space needed and potentially faster speed.

And to deliver the top performance, Wi-Fi 6 needs to operate in the 160MHz channel width, currently the widest.

And just like a freeway, to get a wider lane, you put two narrow ones together. Generally, a 40MHz channel is made of two contiguous 20MHz ones, 80MHz equal two contiguous 40MHz, and two contiguous 80MHz channels combine into a single 160MHz one.

(Consequently, a 160MHz channel gobbles up eight contiguous 20MHz channels.)

As you can imagine, space runs out fast, and on the 5GHz band, we can get about two 160MHz channels. And here’s the biggest issue: Not all 5GHz channels are exclusively used for Wi-Fi. (It’s like a road is not only for cars but also bikes and other types of vehicles.)

Indeed, some channels are reserved for other more consequential applications, including radars, which get the first dibs. A Wi-Fi broadcaster automatically changes to another available, possibly narrower, channel if radar signals are present. (This is like how a car needs to get off a bike lane when a cyclist is getting on it.)

For this reason, these shared channels are called Dynamic Frequency Selection or DFS. When the DFS channel switching occurs, clients will be briefly disconnected from the Wi-Fi network.

And here’s the fact: On the 5GHz band, you can not have a 160MHz channel without using DFS — there are just not enough contiguous non-DFS sub-channels to form the 160MHz width.

(This is like if you want to pull an Airbus 380 on a freeway, you’ll likely have to use all of the lanes and even the shoulder to make a single “lane” for the job.)

In other words, 5GHz 160MHz channels are either fully or partially DFS, as you can see in the diagram below.

wi fi 6E Bands
The 6GHz band is much wider than the 5GHz and 2.4GHz ones, and it doesn’t need to use DFS channels, which the 5GHz must use to deliver 160MHz performance.

Consequently, when you live within tens of miles of an airport or weather radar station, your Wi-Fi 6 router likely appears not as “reliable” as you’d like — you’ll get brief disconnections now and then. This is especially painful when you play online games or use video conferencing often.

Even if that doesn’t bother you, keep in mind that many existing Wi-Fi clients only use 40MHz or 20MHz channels. So, all home Wi-Fi networks have to struggle between compatibility and performance.

Extra: Wi-Fi 6E vs. other Wi-Fi standards

DesignationStandardCommercially 
Available
Top Single-stream SpeedOperating ChannelsFrequency BandsStatus
N/A802.11b199911Mbps20MHz2.4GHzObsolete
N/A802.11a200054Mbps20MHz5GHzObsolete
N/A802.11g200354Mbps20 MHz2.4GHzObsolete
Wi-Fi 4802.11n or Wireless N2009150Mbps20/40MHz2.4GHz and 5GHzLegacy
Wi-Fi 5802.11ac 2012433Mbps20/40/ 80MHz5GHzMainstream
N/A802.11ad2015Multi-Gig2.16GHz60 GHzLimited Use / Obsolete
Wi-Fi 6802.11ax20191200Mbps20/40/80/160MHz2.4GHz and 5GHzMainstream
Wi-Fi 6E802.11ax in 6GHz20211200Mbps20/40/80/160MHz6GHzLatest
Wi-Fi Standards in brief (scroll horizontally for more)

6GHz band to the rescue

Wi-Fi 6E deals with this spectrum shortage and conundrum by using an entirely new frequency band, the 6GHz. This opens hardware up to large Wi-Fi-exclusive airspace, including seven 160MHz or fourteen 80MHz channels.

As a result, Wi-Fi 6E devices will operate freely without the need to accommodate older Wi-Fi standards or spectrum regulations.

In other words, with Wi-Fi 6E, your devices don’t need to bother with 20MHz, 40MHz, or even 80MHz anymore. (It’s like a brand-new freeway with special lanes optimized for speed.)

On top of that, you won’t have to be concerned about the potential sporadic, brief disconnections caused by radar signals.

(And in my experience, so far, Wi-Fi 6E clients — there are currently just a couple of them — indeed can connect at top negotiated speeds easily and deliver impressive sustained throughput rates. You can read more about this on my reviews of Wi-Fi 6E routers.)


So to recap, if a Wi-Fi band is a freeway, then channels are lanes, and we have this crude analogy:

  • The 2.4GHz is like a road that includes only small lanes for bikes.
  • The 5GHz is a freeway with lanes for bikes, cars, buses, and trucks.
  • The 6GHz (Wi-Fi 6E) only has special tracks for a high-speed rail system.

And that brings us to the main shortcomings of Wi-Fi 6E.

Wi-Fi 6E’s shortcomings: There are more than one

Yes, this is the “get real” part. Wi-Fi 6E has a fair share of drawbacks. It’s definitely not the end-all-be-all of Wi-Fi.

Wi-Fi 6E vs. Wi-Fi 6: New hardware required

To use the new 6GHz band, you’ll need a broadcaster, like a router, and a client — such as a phone, laptop, or desktop adapter card — that support it. No existing Wi-Fi equipment, including the latest Wi-Fi 6 routers, works with this band. (This is like you can’t drive a car or ride a bike on rail tracks.)

(Initially, it was rumored that some new Wi-Fi 6 routers already have Wi-Fi 6E-ready hardware, which can be activated via firmware updates. However, by the end of 2020, this proved to be completely false.)

This shortcoming is the same as the move from single band (2.4GHz) to dual-band (2.4GHz + 5GHz) that took place back when Wi-Fi 4 debuted in 2009.

Extra: Wi-Fi 6E brings in a new type of tri-band equipment

Similar to the dual-band case, for backward compatibility, you can expect any Wi-Fi 6E-capable router also to have a 5GHz band, and likely a 2.4GHz band, built-in. In other words, it will be a tri-band router.

Yes, we have existing tri-band broadcasters — like the Asus GT-AX11000, Netgear RAX200, or TP-Link AX11000 — but they all have one 2.4GHz band and two 5GHz bands, mostly to address the bandwidth issue.

In other words, traditional tri-band broadcasters of Wi-Fi 5 or Wi-Fi 6 standards have an additional 5Ghz band. A Wi-Fi 6E broadcaster needs all three bands (2.4Ghz +5GHz +6GHz) to be compatible with all existing and future devices.

(Come to think about it. We might find quad-band routers in the future — those supporting Wi-Fi 6E with an additional 5GHz or 6GHz band.)

Since a Wi-Fi connection occurs in a single band at a time, up to late 2020, we only needed dual-band clients (2.4GHz + 5GHz). With the 6GHz band’s availability, new and upcoming Wi-Fi receivers will likely also be tri-band (2.4GHz + 5GHz + 6GHz).

(Indeed, all Wi-Fi 6E clients — more below — I’ve been working with indeed have this tri-band configuration.)

The reason is for the 6GHz band to be successfully adopted, networking vendors need to keep devices compatible, regardless of the Wi-Fi frequencies being available at any given time. And incorporating multiple bands within the hardware is the only way to achieve that.

Wi-Fi 6E’s second major shortcoming: Much shorter range

Higher frequencies always mean shorter radio broadcasting ranges. FM and AM radio stations broadcast in frequencies much lower than Wi-Fi.

The 5GHz band clearly has a shorter range than that of the 2.4GHz one. So, naturally, the 6GHz band’s range will be behind that of the 5GHz band.

Of course, this assumes that the 6GHz will use the same power level (dBm) as that of existing bands since more power can compensate for the higher frequency.

For now, the power level of Wi-Fi 6E is still somewhat hush-hush, but similar to the 5GHz case, you can expect the 6GHz band to be regulated — it won’t get the spectrum or power freedom vendors and consumers would like. (And that’s a good thing!)

In my real-world experience, Wi-Fi 6E has nothing to call mom so far in terms of coverage.

Wi Fi 6E vs Wi Fi 6 Signals Samsung S21 Ultra
Wi-Fi 6 vs. Wi-Fi 6E in signal strength via two Samsung S21 Ultras.

Indeed, I used two Samsung S21 Ultras — the only fully working Wi-Fi 6E device on the market right now — to test the Netgear RAXE500 and Asus GT-AXE11000. And the result was quite interesting.

The photos above and below were taken when I placed the two phones exactly 45 feet (14 m) away from the RAXE500 within the line of sight. You’ll note how the 5GHz band has much better signal strength — the bars — and negotiated speed than the 6GHz. (It was the same when I used the Asus GT-AXE11000 by the way.)

Wi Fi 6E vs Wi Fi 6 Speeds Samsung S21 Ultra
Wi-Fi 6 vs. Wi-Fi 6E in negotiated speeds via two Samsung S21 Ultras.

This band will evolve, but for now, I’d say that the 6GHz has about 70 percent of the 5GHz range in an open space. If you place the receiver behind a wall, that number now reduces to 60 percent or even just half.

Indeed, the 6GHz can’t penetrate thick objects very well. This is the reason why we’ll never see the 2.4GHz band, which has the best range, go away any time soon, if at all.

This short-range is not a huge issue if you live in a small and open house. However, it will make the 6GHz a terrible choice as the backhaul band for a large-area mesh system. I’d be concerned if I were TP-Link, who seemed to have invested heavily in Wi-Fi 6E for its upcoming mesh sets.

Intel AX210 Wi-Fi 6E Module
This is the first Wi-Fi 6E module on the market, the Intel AX210NGW. Naturally, it’s a tri-band adapter that can work in the 2.4GHz, 5GHz, or 6GHz at any given time.

High cost

And finally, another obvious shortcoming of Wi-Fi 6E is the cost.

Tri-band and quad-band hardware require more materials and sure will be more expensive. Again, keep in mind you need both broadcasters and clients of the same standard to enjoy Wi-Fi 6E.

(Those new Wi-Fi 6E routers I mentioned in this post are among the most expensive single Wi-Fi broadcasters, starting at $550 apiece.)

When can I see real Wi-Fi 6E hardware?

Right now, if you want. But it’s just not worth the cost. Not yet.

Indeed, the move to Wi-Fi 6E has been impressive. The Wi-Fi Alliance first introduced Wi-Fi 6E in early 2020. By April of the same year, FCC approved the use of the 6GHz spectrum for Wi-Fi.

Early 2021, the Wi-Fi Alliance launched the Wi-Fi 6E certification program. That doesn’t mean all hardware variants are immediately certified, however, and they sure are not. But you can find them now. The certification is just a matter of firmware.

As of right now, on the broadcaster side, there’s the Asus GT-AXE11000 and the Netgear RAXE500. Both have proved to be excellent routers in my trials, even when you count the support for the 6GHz band out. Soon enough, you’ll see more routers from different networking vendors.

On the side of clients, again, the Samsung S21 Ultra is the only official choice. The phone uses the BCM4389 mobile chip from Broadcom and has worked very well in my testing.

On top of that, you can upgrade a Windows computer using the Intel AX210 chip. In this case, the Wi-Fi 6E adapter has been hit or miss.


Extra: The curious case of the Intel AX210 Wi-Fi 6E chip

Both Intel and Microsoft haven’t decided to support the 6GHz band fully — they are expected to do so by the end of 2021 –, so this AX210 Wi-Fi 6E chip does not have the official software drivers yet.

There are “tricks” to make Wi-Fi 6E works in Windows 10 via registry hacks, but I’d recommend against doing that sort of thing. Patience is a virtue.

The only way to make the AX210 chip work right now, albeit still not super well, is to join the free Windows Insider Program and install the latest pre-release version of Windows 10. But that’s too much work for something that doesn’t make a huge difference — Wi-Fi 6E has the same speed as Wi-Fi 6.

Update: Not patient and doesn’t want to mess with pre-release Windows 10? Well, you’re in luck. I extracted the official driver from the latest Windows 10 Build and posted that, plus the instruction on installing it on any Windows 10 version in this post.

READ  Intel AX210 Driver: Enabling 6GHz sans Registry Hack or Windows Insider

At this rate, though, Wi-Fi 6E will soon — by the end of 2021 — be adopted and certified by major parties involved. And only then you’ll see more clients.

READ  Asus's ROG Rapture GT-AXE11000 Router Turns Wi-Fi 6E a Reality

That said, it’s safe to say with some effort, you’ll be able to experience Wi-Fi 6E sometime in 2021. How that experience turns out depends on many things, including firmware and software drivers on both sides (broadcasters and clients).

The takeaway

In a sentence, Wi-Fi 6E equals consistently fast Wi-Fi 6 speeds at a close range via an all-new 6GHz frequency band.

Wi-Fi 6E is not entirely better (or worse) than Wi-Fi 6. It’s just an additional option, applicable to certain situations.

And the new wireless standard is here in limited options. Realistically, 2022 is the likely earliest time when Wi-Fi 6E really plays a meaningful role in daily life.

When it comes to Wi-Fi, it’s always getting connected at the time of need and not having the latest and greatest that matters. And for the former, the existing 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands will do for a long time.

Think about it, 5GHz has been out for more than a decade, and the 2.4GHz has never come even close to disappearing — it never will. The 6GHz will be the same. It’s an additional band that’s not meant to replace anything. There’s no need to rush to upgrade.

(It’s like we’ll never ditch the traditional bicycle even now when EVs are the new trend. All will remains as options for different needs.)

Here’s something interesting: As more devices support the new 6GHz bands, the other two (2.4Ghz and 5GHz) will be less congested. So the addition of Wi-Fi 6E is a win-win for both new and old equipment alike.

That said, don’t hold your breath and wait for Wi-Fi 6E. Go ahead and get the equipment that serves your needs today.

It’s always a good idea to give a new standard some time to fully mature before upgrading to it anyway. That’s it if you ever need to upgrade at all proactively.

READ  Best Wi-Fi 6 Routers of 2021: Pick One for Your Home Today!

25 thoughts on “Wi-Fi 6E Explained: Better Wireless Connections at the Expense of Range”

  1. Nice write up. I recently tried the RAXE500 with my S21 Ultra but I wasn’t able to get above 600Mbps down with Speed test on the 6Ghz band on symmetrical Gig service. It was very strange as I saw other folks get 900 down.

    I switched back to the Archer AX6000 for now while prices on 6E routers come down.

    Reply
    • You were probably too far from the router, J. Wi-Fi 6E has a very short range. But using a mobile device to test speed is never a good idea, especially for something you know that’s faster than 400Mbps.

      Reply
      • I’d love it if that were the case but my S21 Ultra was 6″ above the RAXE500 during testing. While I did like the RAXE500, I can’t stomach the price tag at $600. I will wait until later this year for the TPLink X206 to come out with its 10GB ports which is much more future proofed than the RAXE500

        Reply
  2. Hi Dong,

    Thanks as always for the dedication to this for our benefit. Once question on your 6E analysis with Bandwidth…

    I noticed you used WPA3 on the 6ghz and WPA2 on the 5ghz. Wouldn’t that affect the speed results? Can you run both at same encryption level or maybe even turn encryption off for the test? Just curious.

    Regards,
    Bob

    Reply
    • No that workdn’t, Bob. But 6E will NOT work with WP2 and many 5GHz clients don’t support well this standard. If anything, the settings only help with what I was trying to explain. It was a best-case scenario.

      Reply
    • This depends on the environment, Bob, but in an open space, you can expect 50m at best. It’s definitely shorter than that of 5GHz. Keep in mind though, the range doesn’t just drop off entirely, the distance here means where it still provides a meaningful connection. More here.

      Reply
  3. SD 865+ mobile SoC are said to be compatible with Wifi 6E.
    So the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra (SM-N986U), Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 2, Asus ROG Phone 3, OnePlus 8T, Lenovo Legion Phone Duel, and any other phones using it, should take advantage of it, as soon as base stations become available…

    Reply
    • Thanks for the info, Clement. By the time you can take advantage of that, though, you might have gotten a new phone already. 🙂

      Reply
    • “Compatible with” is not the same as “available”. A lot of things are compatible with a lot of things, but, unless a specific piece of hardware and/or license is also included and activated, the compatibility is only a bullet point on the sales brochure.

      This is especially common with electronics.

      Reply
  4. Hi Dong:
    A few clarifications.
    1. AM Radio broadcasts occur in kilohertz frequencies, not megahertz.
    2. OFDMA, MU-MIMO, 1024 QAM, and 6 GHz are all required for Wi-Fi 6E broadcasts. Further, the usable broadcast bandwidths for Wi-Fi 6E include 20Mhz, 40Mhz, 80Mhz and 160Mhz.
    3. In previous Wi-Fi standards, endpoints decided which Wi-Fi channel(s) to use. But, no more. Because the wireless access point should have the best view of local Wi-Fi airwave usage, the current Wi-Fi 6E host (WAP or router) decides which channel(s) the endpoint device will use.

    Reply
  5. Many current wifi6 chipsets are capable for 6GHz, that’s where the rumors came from, but they forgot one thing, does the FEM (or PA/LNA) in your routers support 6GHz? If no, that means NO.

    Reply
    • idk.. have u seen the mod to add pcie to the pi 4? yeah I’m just being pandentic because even a pin compatible upgrade then requires firmware mod and that’s probably blob and a bit esoteric if not entirely.

      possible yes
      probable probably not bug maybe

      also is broadcaster dongs term of did wifi adopt this

      it’s cringe

      Reply
  6. Great info Dong thank youi! I think it’s safe to say I will follow my common practice of giving technology time to mature. By the time we have stable and improved firmware it takes pretty much almost a year. Look at the recent high end wifi 6 routers. Now as of May netgear and asus both have released some nice firmware updates on improving their routers and adding features. Once we seen wifi 6e routers it would probably be a good idea to wait another year to see if even much hardware is out there to support it. All we know is that supporting hardware always takes so long to catch up. I mean we don’t even have much wifi 6 capable hardware out even today so it makes sense to wait. I am not holding my breath 🙂

    Reply
  7. Thank you for the information. If I was looking to upgrade to mesh network,

    Setup: 3600 sq ft 3 level house, r8000, wired bridge r7000 and extender. All on different floors, have dead spot issues, low signal. I do good amount of gaming, streaming, alot of wired and wireless devices, IOT with this information should I:

    Get best bang for your buck mesh (maybe wifi5 or wifi6) thinking that nighthawk small boxes. And upgrade everything to 6e in a year or 2.

    Just stick with what I have now and use custom firmware to adjust and go with 6E when available

    Is there any reason/advantage to get high end router and getting 6E 2nd router/satellites

    Thank you for any feedback

    Reply
    • We don’t know how Wi-Fi 6E is going to pan out, yet, Rich. But your current situation with multiple extenders like that is not ideal. Almost any mesh system will be better. Wired backhaul is the best way to go. Maybe start with this post.

      Reply
  8. Many current WiFi 6 routers are based off the Broadcom BCM6755 and BCM43684 radios – for example the Asus ZenWiFi XT8.The BCM6755 SoC spec page (https://www.broadcom.com/products/wireless/wireless-lan-infrastructure/bcm6755) seems to indicate support for WiFi 6E, “Expanded 6 GHz frequency coverage including spectrum up to 7125 MHz expected to become available under new regulatory rules.” Have any manufactuters said whether they would provide WiFi 6E support through a firmware update? It seems like the hardware would support it.

    I understand the perdictiment this puts manufacturers in, however I hope they’ll at least consider support through a firmware update. I’d even be open to a paid-for-license upgrade model where I pay a nominal fee to unlock WiFi 6E support.

    Anyways, have you heard anything in this regard?

    Reply
    • Yeap, B. That was my hope and initially, Asus kinda hinted that could be the case. Later on, though, they said it was a no no. My guess is the chips were released way before FCC approved the spectrum so they might not have had the correct specs. As for right now, vendors are quite firm on new hardware. But that might change, though unlikely. But I sure will update this post as I learn more.

      Reply
  9. I think the chart is potentially confusing since wifi6 uses 80/160mhz interchangeably based on the tier of hardware. AX1500/1800 Broadcom solutions for example have no access to 160mhz channels since the SoC doesn’t support it. The same case can be argued for the few wifi5 clients with 160mhz support.

    1×1 wifi6 is 600mbps on 1024-QAM(native) with 80mhz channels. 1200mbps with 160mhz
    1×1 wifi5 is 433mbps on 256-QAM(native)with 80mhz channels. 866.7mbps with 160mhz

    Just looks and potentially would indicate a bigger jump than it is I guess? Especially considering the limited channels on 5G and required DFS support.

    6E would have the valid argument if ratified to support 160mhz as a minimum spec, but I haven’t looked into that. Channel support isn’t an issue here, though.. 😀

    Reply
    • Agreed and thanks for the input, J. I’m trying to figure out how to make it more clear without being overly convoluted.

      Reply

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